It is becoming just as healthy for you to chew on the soybeans in your field as it is for the livestock that are the primary consumers of soybeans. Molecular breeding and sophisticated analytics are helping companies like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred develop soybeans with oils and proteins that are healthier than traditional varieties for human consumption. The two companies recently announced the availability of low-linolenic soybeans for planting under contracts with soybean processors starting next year.

Monsanto's new soybean seeds will be labeled under the Vistive brand, which is its new line of products offering consumer benefits. The Vistive varieties include the Roundup Ready trait and will be available in Monsanto's Asgrow brand.

Pioneer has identified the variety 93M20 as low linolenic. This variety will be available in limited quantities and in a limited area for 2005. It, too, contains the Roundup Ready trait.

Less need for hydrogenation

Linolenic acid in soybeans makes the soybean oil turn rancid and smoke when it is used for frying, which is the biggest use for soybean oil, so food companies must put the beans through a process called partial hydrogenation. Trans fats are produced in this process, and they are linked to heart disease because they lower the level of good cholesterol and raise the level of bad cholesterol in the body.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has entered the trans fat issue by requiring food companies to include trans fat amounts on all food labels by January 1, 2006. Because food companies don't want their products to appear to be unhealthy, they may cut back their use of soy oil because it is partially hydrogenated. The soybean industry fears that soybean oil's dominance in the edible oil market will diminish if soybeans aren't improved for food applications.

Both Monsanto's and Pioneer's low-linolenic soybeans contain less than 3% linolenic acids compared to traditional varieties with 8% acid. This low level means the need for hydrogenation is greatly reduced or eliminated and therefore the presence of trans fats in the processed soybean oil is reduced.

Déjà vu.

In the 1990s, Pioneer released five low-linolenic varieties geared to the processing market. However, the market for those new soybeans didn't pan out, and the varieties were eventually retired. It should be different this time because Pioneer as well as Monsanto have agreements with major soybean processors for purchase of the beans.

Pioneer's parent company DuPont has entered into an alliance with Bunge Limited for the production and delivery of the low-linolenic soybeans. Bunge will market the oil from these new soybeans to food companies under the brand name Nutrium. About 50,000 acres of the 93M20 variety will be planted next year.

Monsanto has lined up two processors to purchase its low-linolenic soybeans. Ag Processing (AGP) and Cargill will enter into contracts with growers for the delivery of the Vistive brand soybeans next fall. AGP will contract with Iowa growers for up to 60,000 acres of the new soybeans in 2005. Premiums for the beans may be $0.25/bu. Cargill will contract with Iowa growers for another 50,000 acres of Vistive beans. A much wider rollout of the new seed varieties is planned for 2006. Monsanto will license the new trait to other seed companies.

The low-linolenic soybeans are the first generation in Monsanto's plan to breed healthier soybeans. The next products will include mid-oleic soybeans with the low-linolenic trait. The mid-oleic soybeans will improve the shelf life and flavor of soybean oil. In the next generation, expect soybeans that produce oil with low saturates and oil enriched with omega-3. Monsanto also is researching proteins in the soybeans. In 10 years, Monsanto claims, the soybean may be very different from the one grown today and will be very healthy for humans.

Kerry Preete, Monsanto's vice president of U.S. crop production, states, “We're working closely with [food] manufacturers to understand their oil and protein needs, and we're confident that our robust product pipeline will be able to meet their objectives and provide consumers with improved choices.”

No yield tradeoffs

Both Monsanto and Pioneer assure growers that these soybean varieties do not give up yield. Monsanto officials report that the parents of five of the six proposed Vistive lines are elite varieties and are still in use today. The Roundup Ready trait contained in the new varieties is not a concern for the oil market.

Pioneer says that 93M20 performed as well as one of the company's top three varieties in last year's performance tests.